Las Vegas Sun

January 18, 2018

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Columnist Tom Gorman: On Knowing all things Liberace

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

Oh my, if the girls back in California could see Nedra now.

For 24 years, Nedra Rodheim was a nurse at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. She taught natural childbirth classes, helped moms cope with post-partum blues and instructed them in how to properly nurse their newborns.

During her free time, she volunteered at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

She retired from nursing in 2001, at the age of 74, and moved to Las Vegas in search of a dry climate. You might have thought she'd take up bingo or bridge, and maybe occasionally take the shuttle to the outlet center for a fun diversion.

Well, Nedra has taken to Vegas like neon to tubes. She's hooked on dollar slots. She wears bling and sequins. And she's one of the town's oldest performers, appearing several times a week down near the Strip.

You can catch her act at the Liberace Museum at the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street. She's a tour guide.

I discovered her the other day while looking for a different way to show off Las Vegas to my visiting mother, Betty Lou. Even though my wife, Jeanne, and I had seen Liberace perform at the Las Vegas Hilton some 30 years ago and have eaten at Liberace's Copenhagen-inspired Tivoli Gardens, we have dismissed the museum as surely too kitschy.

But Mom enjoys all things celebrity, and the Liberace Museum would fill the bill.

We got there in time for the afternoon tour that was led by Nedra, one of the museum's 10 tour guides, and we were surprised by the jaw-dropping exhibits inside the place: the rhinestone-coated cars, the historically rich piano collection (including a 1920s Chickering grand on which George Gershwin composed), the outrageous costumes, the oversized jewelry.

There were some surprises in the mix too, such as the historic Louis XV desk on which the Franco-Russian alliance was signed, and the gold-rimmed Moser crystal.

Nedra explained that after Liberace's unprecedented third Royal Command Performance, Queen Elizabeth allowed Moser to create for him a set of crystal from her exclusive pattern.

But somehow, Liberace first convinced Moser to cut the outline of a crown into the mold, directly above his monogram "L." Not even the queen's set of crystal incorporated a crown.

As Nedra told us with a wink, Liberace's crystal wasn't going to just any queen, and she smiled in appreciation as her double-entendre sunk in.

Working at the museum has given Nedra some of her best lines. She grew up in Baltimore, Md., but convinced her parents to move to Hollywood in 1944 in search of stardom.

The path went over too many casting couches, she said, so she opted for a career on the production side of the curtain. She got a job at one of Los Angeles' first radio stations, KLAC, pulling records for disc jockey Al Jarvis and escorting such performers as Al Jolson, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole to the studio.

In the early 1950s she returned to Baltimore as a radio station program director -- a rare job for a woman in those days -- before moving back to California for a life as wife and mother.

When she was 38 her husband died, so to make a living she earned a degree as a nurse. It led to her career at Hoag Hospital -- and the belated realization that she didn't like hanging around sick people "who just hack and spit."

She buried herself in the baby business, instead. And because of her continuing love for theater, she volunteered for nine years at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, in its membership, hospitality and education departments.

"When I moved to Las Vegas, I wondered what I'd do next," she said. "Like my kids say, retirement sucks."

Given her background in Costa Mesa as a docent, she volunteered at the Liberace Museum. Two years later, she was hired.

For all the enjoyment that Liberace's television performances brought Nedra, going back to the early 1950s when he was a summer replacement for Dinah Shore's show, she never once saw him in person.

Nedra believes she has read every published bit of information on Liberace -- a fact that has gotten her gently scolded by museum officials because, as a result, her tours tend to last longer than the intended one hour. Nobody on the staff, it seems, knows as many Liberace factoids as Nedra.

"And I love hearing people's own memories of Liberace, of seeing him on TV or on stage," she told me. "The museum is like a touchstone for everyone who comes here."

Nedra said that her friends teased her about her job. "They told me, 'How Las Vegas can you get?'

"But living here and working at the museum is like heaven for a little Quaker girl who, growing up, couldn't wear lipstick and short skirts."